Tag Archives: Refugees

Cristina Mazzoni and Michelle Reale: Birds of Sicily in Art and Spoken Word


With heartfelt thanks to my friend and amazing artist Cristina Mazzoni (MCM arts), here are her wonderful watercolors of a variety of birds found in Sicily as the backdrop for my reading of Birds of Sicily, the title poem from my collection of the same name.

I love when collaboration takes place like this so effortlessly.  Every single day I look forward to Cristina’s amazing artwork, often representations of the natural world, paired with exquisite poetry from all of the poetic giants the world over. When she approached me about the idea for this little “movie” I felt so honored—she is such a huge talent and I am humbled.  Her birds are so real in their rendering, so soulful and free.

My collection of poems, Birds of Sicily uses the metaphor of migratory and birds of flight to tell, in poems, the story of a man, my grandfather who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life.

If I juxtapose this with the refugees of today, I can see even in flight one is not free.  It is hard to shake the chains of hatred, resentment and displacement, often what they find in most of the places in which they land.

Birds , to a certain extent can be free, because they have wings that can lift, propel and keep them in flight.  But they are also caged, hunted and susceptible to many things that can harm them when they are out of their habitat.

In that way, humans — refugees, are like birds, too. Under great duress they flee for better , higher ground, but can never really know, ahead of time, what they will find

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The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others

Albert Schweitzer

If one pays close attention, the traveller or more specifically the tourist in Sicily will see “need” at every turn.  The evidence of poverty , homelessness  and the displacement of refugees to those enjoying a  vacation  is an “inconvenient truth” , with most people choosing , whether consciously or subconsciously , to ignore what, in reality, cannot and should not be denied.

homeless in Sicily

I am not much of a tourist. In fact, I never have been. The place where I love to dwell, literally and figuratively, is in everyday life.   I have a friend that used to joke that I was a true member of the often-castigated “hoi polloi”. I am proud of that. In general, I am not interested in seeing whatever is in a guidebook and I am quite certain that no matter where I have found myself in the world, I have missed things that are deemed by the venerable guide books (that people clutch like the Bible) a “must see.” Honestly, I have never really cared about such things.

For the past 4 years I have been lucky enough to lead my students to Sicily each March, which is the travel component of my class, “This Sea is Not My Home: Immigration, Migration and Social Justice in the Sicilian Context.” As you can glean from the title, what started out as class that on the vagaries of immigration, migration and refugees, has slowly morphed into examining the realities of not only migration as a worldwide movement and phenomenon, but, perhaps more importantly, the lives’ of refugees themselves. The people, not just the geopolitical situation.  

PEOPLE

I have staunchly defended (and still do) the rights of people to migrate from one place to another, most particularly for reasons  that people seek asylum. I could also reason the cruel irony of how protected merchandise is and how easy it is to cross borders ($$$$$) though masses of people are seen as a scourge. I have had to listen to Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans, often with fingers in my face trying to tell me how bad the situation is for Sicilians in their own country. I sympathized—how could I not— but my particular focus was on refugees into the country, not those suffering from a decimated economy resulting in an  unemployment rate so high , the first time I was told what it was, I though I had misheard. But, in fact, I would have to be cold, hard, shiny plastic not to care. ,

I care

Last week my students and I helped out at a Catholic Relief Agency one evening. The students were tasked to shop during the day for the food in the open market. On the menu was fruit salad, green salad and chicken stew. We washed and chopped and the wonderful men and women at the agency did the actual cooking. But my students and I portioned the food out. And we served. We served a hungry, possibly homeless (at least some of them) and grateful bunch of people. Among a group of perhaps 45 there was a family with two young boys. There were approximately 4 refugees that I could easily identify. The others were Sicilian.

To think of them now ties my heart up in knots.   I have listened to, read and discussed the situation in Sicily with people I deeply trust there: friends, advocates, cultural mediators and educators, all on the front lines , involved and passionate.   I have come to the conclusion that at least one of the reasons that  many are opposed to the  influx and presence of the refugees is that many  themselves are also suffering—and they perceive (not accurately) that their jobs, or at least the possibility of employment will be taken from them.   How can you possibly convince those with that mindset otherwise? It is hard to be compassionate in the face of your own fear and suffering.

What I know is that in that room when the bell was struck for the Our Father before the eating of the meal, everyone in the room stood and there was utter silence. There was respect, too, that everyone in the room had for one another: young, old, black, white, immigrant and refugee.  In that moment, everyone was connected somehow, and our differences did not matter.

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With each plate I set before someone who was waiting to eat,  I said “buon appetito”. Every single person responded, warmly, with a smile and a “grazie.” This is not to fetishize those in need—far from it, but I see poverty of every kind as a sort of equalizer—it reduces us to the essence of our humanity—and it elevates us too, when we lend a hand, in any way, to help alleviate it.

When we passed out the fruit cups, the two young boys very carefully enunciated “thank you” to me in English.   I replied in kind. The mother looked up at me and asked, in a bit of an embarrassed way, if I could maybe find a cup of fruit with more oranges.   “The boys really love oranges,” she said

Oranges

The reality of having to bring your children to a social service agency in order to feed them, hit me in a very vulnerable place. While intellectually, I know this a sad, but common occurrence, I’d never faced it so up close.  It felt personal  Most people who will read this blog post will be very far from such an experience.  I looked at those kids and I felt my face flush.  Time seemed to stop for just a moment.

I will continue to seek and narrate the voices of refugees in Sicily—I am committed to this work. Sicily is , a complicated but wonderful place, and  my eyes are now more open to the need everywhere. It is not like taking sides: refugees need very particular help, being such a vulnerable and at risk population. The homeless , poverty stricken , the addicted, the forgotten,  need help and compassion, too. Compassion for everyone can go a long way.

At the end of the evening, one man came up to my students and jovially observed , “You can’t understand me and I can’t understand you, but yet, here we are together!”

After all, hunger in the belly hurts us all in exactly the same way.

 

Silhouette of stick people on hillside and sunset in background

Hunger in the Belly Feels the Same to Us All: Feeding the Needy in Sicily

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A Day of Service: start small, do something


 

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States.   It is a day of “service” to those in need, to working for social justice, to further the cause.   My interest and my (very) humble work (I do a mere fraction of what others are doing for refugees) is based in my personal philosophy of service, inspired and sustained in me by MLK.

Today, do something in service of the plight of the poor, the homeless, the disencranchised. Do this from where ever you are and in any way that you can.

Small steps, small gestures mean so much.  And they add up.

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“Commitment is What You Do When the Emotion is Gone: Refugees as the ’cause du jour’ “


Last week I received a comment on one of my blog posts.   The writer, “Johanna” from Finland responded this way: Problem is that we know too MUCH about them to ever accept them. There you have it.

The way in which I responded was a chance for her to explain what she meant by that, but of course, I know exactly what she meant.   “What” exactly, does she, or anyone else for that matter, know about “them?” If she were to tell the truth, she might reply: actually, nothing. And yet, one gets the impression that she was not only speaking for herself, but perhaps for her country. Finland. Well, as infuriating as that comment was, she is far from the only one expressing it.   And “Johanna”, of course, never responded

In the intervening years in which I have dedicated myself, as so many others have, to the cause of refugees, most specifically those coming to Sicily, I , too, have been the target of some very nasty racist comments and attitudes, many from Sicilian-Americans.   I have quit many online Sicilian culture forums where I have previously enjoyed the camaraderie of the culture, until someone would start discussions about Sicily’s burden of receiving refugees. It became to much for me. What began, ostensibly as discussion about a worldwide phenomenon quickly became ad hominem attacks on me, personally. Why wasn’t’ I helping Sicilians who were also suffering?   How dare I call myself Sicilian/American while daring to “out” Sicilian racism.   Why was I such a n****r lover?   I felt soul sick.   As in the United States, it is a difficult and frustrating enterprise to attempt to explain deep seated , inveterate, structural and institutionalize racism to those who simply will themselves not to understand. Who, instead, will turn their financial and/or societal woes into be the fault of a vulnerable population seeking refugee from unspeakable horrors.   I became the hated and the reviled. A traitor to my own “people.”

The Gillard Government made a commitment in 2010 to release all children from immigration detention by June 2011, but still 1000 children languish in the harsh environment of immigration camps around Australia. The Refugee Action Collective organised a protest on July 9, 2011 outside the Melbourne Immigration Transit accommodation which is used for the detention of unaccompanied minors.

Racism and fear of the “intruder” is by no means exclusive to Sicily. In face, it must be stated here, how many amazing people I know in Sicily who have wholly dedicated their lives to the plight of the refugees, offering shelter, education, food, jobs and support. These people do this because it is right. They were tirelessly. This is not the cause du jour. This is a way of LIFE.   We know, by the many countries that have refused entry to refugees, that the resistance toward them is strong and seemingly not, in any way, abating. Why is that? In fact, many immigrants have found there way into any number of European countries—they travel far from home to make Italy, France, England or any other number of European countries in which they were not born, to make their homes there.   But where, is the resistance to those situations? Rarely, if ever, is there any. Usually, because those who do that are difficult to identify as “not belonging.” But the African refugee is instantly recognizable.   There is nowhere to hide.   Simply finding safe and affordable housing is often a feat of gargantuan proportions, because no one wants them to live among them. This is how ghettoes are formed. This is how people are relegated to the margins. And then many can assuage any feelings of guilt that are, frankly, unlikely to happen by saying: “well, what are they complaining about? They have a place to live!

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To combat racism against these refugees means raising your voice. It means being dedicated to the cause of those who flee when no other choice is viable. Who would leave their home in the way in which they do, if not to save their own lives’?   Grand sweeping gestures are good (everyone is ready to go to Sicily to “help the refugees”) but there are so many ways that you can help from where you are. How do you speak about racism, how do you challenge and witness to those who are victims, daily, of a bias that at its base is so evil as to almost be unspeakable? How do you help where you already are? How are you lifting your voices?   So many I have spoken to are interesting: they want to help refugees, but would not dream of living next door to one.   We have to be suspect of that.   We are not perfect, but we have to begin somewhere.

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Right now, the refugee crisis is the cause du jour for many who have not been paying attention for a lot of years. To those, I say: Commitment is what you do, what you have, what you enact when the emotion of the current event is gone, when it exists even though it has receded from the headlines.

Peace.

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No End to Tears: Refugee Deaths in the Mediterranean


Those who work in the human rights arena are quite good at statistical information. Right now, all eyes are on the Mediterranean as authorities are claiming that the latest deaths of refugees on packed boats is the worst disaster to hit this body of water, ever.   This is a humanitarian tragedy, a massacre, disaster being too tame a word for the way I and so many others feel about these senseless deaths.

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Statistics on refugees are ubiquitous. The agencies that attempt to give this population aid and other services count their heads like herds of sheep, attempt to track their impact on the places in which they find themselves, small towns on mainland Italy and Sicily in which the unemployment rates are higher than one can even imagine they could be, and they live, these vulnerable people, in fear of being scapegoats for just about anything that ails a society. I am tired of hearing how only 10% of refugees who arrive in Italy arrive by boat. What is this statistic supposed to mean? My humanitarian standards, that 10% matters a hell of a lot.

I, and so many others, who have seen this terrible refugee phenomenon up close and personal in the Mediterranean, can’t help but feel that this latest tragedy goes beyond the pale.   The anger that I feel at a system that has failed, in any concerted and systematic attempt to alleviate these deaths in the cold waters of the Mediterranean,( what I have called a “liquid coffin” in this blog before), simply boggles the mind.

Refugee bodies

It has been re ported that Italy’s coastguard, coordinating the search for survivors, found only 28 who managed to keep breathing.   They believe that 700 people were on one of the boats and that refugees caused the boat to capsize as they panicked and all ran to one end of the boat, helping to sink it.

The water, thick and slick with oil is preventing divers from the recovery of bodies.

All of those bodies.

All of those young lives.

“It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean, “ UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.

Carlotta Sami

Carlotta Sami

Understatment. And sadly, almost certainly, not the last incident we will be witness to.

Have we not learned anything from the horrific Lampedusan tragedy of October 3 , 2013 where the deaths of Eritrean nationals, was said to be upwards of 363? The  sorrowful platitudes echoed for months afterwards, heads sadly and slowly shook from side to side, eyes downcast, fists beat against breasts.

And yet.

For years the refugees have been coming, heading for port cities, anyplace to  to build their  new lives. .   Does this seem an obvious point to make? I make it people begin need to begin  to pay attention(in case they have been living under a rock somewhere) when something incredibly awful happens, when the news media flood our eyes with terrible images. But the thing is, this is not new—-and—do you see what I am getting at? Anyone?

When does the breast-beating end and real solutions begin?

European Union???  The world is waiting.

The MED

As the political analysts weigh in, doing what they do, prognosticating with furrowed brows from a distance, the refugees will continue to flee desperate situations despite they danger and arrive in places in which their lives’ will be far from what they had hoped that they would be. A place where their very lives’ are very, very big business, for those who know how to make a living off of the most vulnerable. And there are many who are doing just that.

I have been in refugee camps and refugee centers and have witnessed the deep sadness, nearly pathological in the eyes of those whose future is uncertain at best. How does one even begin to think of a future when one’s most immediate past are memories of a journey full of fear, deprivation and exploitation?

Until then, the world will keep count.

But no one will be able to pretend, any longer, that this hasn’t been a tragedy all along, that each new massacre isn’t the first of its kind.

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Life as it is Lived: On Encountering Refugees


We tend to see refugees as the unfortunate refuse of the (mostly) African countries that they come from, because, well, so many also assume that most countries in Africa are wretched—that normal life cannot exist anywhere on the continent, so teeming humanity pile into boats in search of a better way to live.

Fact: most do not want to leave their countries—they simply have no choice.  This is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee: choice.  I have had this discussion so many times with my students and I have asked them: what could make you leave the only home you have known at a moment’s notice?  Most cannot begin to conceive  the kind of situations that  be so dire that they would need (not want) to flee with only the clothes on their back. I ask them to think it through, step by step.  The emotional and physical obstacles to simply leave one’s country is beyond my own comprehension, let alone, the enormity of making a new home in a culture so different in so many fundamental ways, that one must reorient every single aspect of their lives.   Resettlement is an often brutal process, often taking years before a refugee can feel a semblance of balance and normalcy.

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Recently, with my students in a Sicily we encountered refugees daily, on the streets, and in a refugee center where they lived a life that seemed tenuous, at best.    In the center, I  asked my students to look beyond what the situation seemed to be:

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young  men and one young women were extremely friendly, well-dressed, joked easily and attempted (and succeeded!) in making some wonderful bonds with my students.   They seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors their own age, to be able to relax and tell things about themselves to people who were interested—and who cared

We ate lunch with them. Afterwards, we all played various games and sang popular songs and posed for group and individual photos.  Not until  later, when two of the refugees led us on a short tour of their temporary home, did some of my students begin to feel uncomfortable.  A few expressed it to me, but , as one claimed, he “could not put his finger on it.”  Because some things must be felt and processed in the privacy of one’s own thoughts, I nodded knowingly and advised them to write in their journals and attempt to think things through.   I encouraged them to think about the reality of their lives’—not just what was presented to us, or what we wanted to see—to console ourselves that all is well—after all, they had food in their stomachs and a place to lay their heads at night.

 

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So what was it?

Upon our return back to the small , suburban Liberal Arts college , I met with three of the students who shared their uneasiness with me.   This pleased me because  not all will see or feel this immediately.

My students identified so many of the factors contributing to the  difficulties the refugees would experience.  They included the fact that they are non-Europeans now living and tryng to fit in a European culture.   That they are far, far, far from their homes of origin and therefore separated from any influence of their own culture, the culture that has formed them as the people they are today.   That  they seemed conscious of being the grateful all the time—in fact, the benevolence bestowed upon them fairly demands that they be in a constant state of thanking someone (or many) —which can be exhausting.  That the refugee did not necessarily choose the country in which s/he would land. And in the case of Italy, few want to stay.  They lack a great level of agency in the center, a place they are grateful to be in , but can in no way be called “home”.  In some ways they are infantisized: they are told when and what they will eat, etc. They can become anxious, hopeless, depressed, nostalgic.  And they may cycle through these emotions many different times.  Because , really, who can forget their home?

Often, the treacherous journey is just the beginning. What can be seen as the real struggle begins when their feet touch solid ground.   And soon, that ground does not feel so solid.   What will their lives’ become?

Much has been made of the news media’s coverage of the sea voyages of  refugees.   The rickety , unseaworthy boats,  the drawn and mournful faces of the survivors.  And some will, haughtily, declare the statistics: that less than 10 percent of these refugees arrive by boat, so why does the media insist on portraying these refugees?

 

Because , from a humanitarian point of view, this population matters. And they matter a lot.  And no sooner has the refugee survived perhaps the most perilous journey of his or her life,  reality sets in. This is a hard and brutal road.  Many I have spoken to wish they had never left home.

My students met the only girl currently living at the center—the rest are young African men. She is young. Her parents are dead. She has no relatives in Italy.  She is a beautiful girl with a warm and welcoming smile.  Yes, she welcomed us. She was eager to make a connection, especially with my female students.image

And my students listened to her and , I am proud to say, really, really heard her. And what was amazing to me is that they each sought commonalities , not differences. And they bonded over things that girls everywhere bond over.  What impressed me was their was no objectifying of her—she was just Blessing, a teenage Nigerian girl who simply wanted to make friends.  What she shared of her life occurred after she felt comfortable and she shared details of her own free will.

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One day , sitting at an outdoor cafe despite the chilly weather, I and my students encountered a Sengalese street vendor. Very tall and handsome,  the many approached our table and smiled immediately at one of my students and said: “You are from America—you are black, like me, but not as dark!” We all laughed and marveled at his perception.  This man had dignity. He was well-spoken. He engaged us on any number of topics, including all of the languages he can speak.  He was not pressuring us to buy anything, which surprised me.  Maybe he knew one of us would buy something anyway.  I had my eye on a trio of bracelets.  He caught my eye. “Ahhhh, he said.  You like these, don’t you?” He smiled widely.  He placed them on the table and I bought them.

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He said he needed to move on , but shook all of our hands, and then touched his palm to his heart. Nodded and said that he hoped he would see us again before we left.   Before he walked away, he told us that he lived in Catania. That he did not always look the way we were viewing him that day—with all of his various wears hanging about his body for sale.  ” You should see me when I am at home and not working!  I live in the city, I am different, not always working.  I have a life!”

Indeed.  And it gave my students, who will be trying to figure all of this out for a long time, something to think about.   A refugee who is making his way in his new life. Who no longer thinks of himself as a refugee ,  (nor should we), but instead,  just a man, like any other working and living his life.

An individual who deserves to be happy.

 

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The Unknowable Reality of the Refugee


“While every refugees story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage: the courage not only to survive , but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”

Antonio Guterres

The lives’ of refugees are often unknowable, unfathomable, though they are often portrayed in one of two ways: either as the noble and unfortunate sufferer or the unwelcome undesirables who should go back to wherever they came from. I understand and recognize the dichotomous thinking, how easy it is to be tempted to put a person or a situation that we do not know or understand, in a box, a category. In my encounters with refugees, I attempt to speak as honestly with them as possible . It is I that usually seeks them out , either in refugee camps, reception centers or on the streets of the Sicilian town in which they attempt to live and work and begin their lives’ anew. It is rare for them to initiate contact with me, but it happens.

One day in the open market, I stood with a few of my bright, curious students, under a large umbrella, tasting cheese and otherwise enjoying our day, when a man approached me, by tapping me on the shoulder. I turned around and he stood in front of me , smiling. My students assumed that I knew him, but in fact, I do not ever remember seeing him before, but he insisted that I had.

He handed me a photo and a piece of paper in which he scrawled his name , some Arabic writing and a few other things. He asked me to help him find a job. And then, just to help him, period.

Refugee I met in the open market.

Refugee I met in the open market.

He engaged my students in some conversation, but , kept his eyes on me the entire time. He kept asking me to call him, to help him. Again, he referenced that he’d seen me in the camp and assumed I was an aid worker, in a position to offer, well, aid.

These are the times when I question the responsibility of my encounters with such a vulnerable population. There are severe limits to what I can do. There are limits to so much of what any of us can do for the refugee in any given situation. I saw the desperation in this man’s eyes. When I relayed the story to a friend upon my return home, she felt he probably wanted to exploit me, in some way, perhaps taking advantage of what he perceived to be my kindness. Another friend shook his head slowly, wondered if I knew what I was doing at all.

 

Notes, written.

Notes, written.

I saved his photo and the piece of paper. It serves to remind me of the limits of my work. It also reminds me of the importance of doing what I can in fact do.

I never saw this man again.

A week later, my mentor called me back home in the states.

Hey,” he said. “Remember that refugee who gave you his photo in the open market?”

I told him that of course I remembered him. I could not get him out of my mind.

I saw him surrounded by police the other day, on the street. They arrested him.”

For what?” I asked.

A soft,  chuckle on the other end of the phone, one of frustration, not of mirth.

That,” he said, “I do not know. It could be anything.”

In fact, my mentor was right. It could be anything at all. And no one will ever know.

The unknowable life of the refugee is the reason why I do what I do. Their stories matter. But in fact, it takes patience in the telling , in the understanding.

Their lives’ are often ones of desperation. They are not perfect people—in that way, they are just like the rest of us: imperfect in our humanity, just trying, trying every day.

But the playing field, as they say , is not a level one.

I do not know where this man is, what he wanted from me that day, or what might have happened to him.

But I think about him nearly every day and I still, I wonder. And of course, I hope for the very best.

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Storied lives: the Care and Witness of the Refugee


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We live storied lives, not storybook lives. The difference is an essential one.

Lives matter. And there are so many ways of saying something. So many realities to represent and a myriad ways of doing it. But first you have to look and then you have to “see”. You have to go deeper than the surface level. There are unknowns depths, but depths nonetheless. This is not my story. It never will be my story. It is not about me. And yet, it involves me somehow , because in my interest and my approach and my account of refugees lives’ comes from who I am, too. There is no objectivity. I cannot escape my own point of view. So representations comes in layers, laid upon one another like think plastic overlay, until they are inextricable from one another.

To tell of someone’s life is a great responsibility. To be an ethnographer is to enact care and witness. To do ethnography among a vulnerable population is to enact care and witness to the extreme. This is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. And yet it is fraught with responsibility, with pitfalls, ethical concerns and yet, there is joy, too. I find it in the spaces in-between the harrowing accounts of passage, the longing for those left behind , the nausea of finding yourself in a new place without knowing a thing of what it may be to survive there. Because most people live between the spaces of all that interferes with a trouble-free happiness on a daily basis. And the refugee, even more so.

 

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In Sicily, one encounters so many faces , some more acclimated than others. It took me some time to get used to what was expected of the refugee in Sicily. In the United States, we hold multiculturalism as the standard for newcomers—at least in theory. In Europe, and I will speak of Sicily, because this is the place I know best, the standard is assimilation. So the refugee must often contort who and what he is to fit in, if in fact, he ever does. Often, the measure of how well a refugee or immigrant is received is how well they have assimilated into Sicilian society. This often means a (gradual) repudiation of their own customs, their language, the very embodiment of their own culture.

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The backdrop is sun ,ancient stone and sea. The refugee who comes to Sicily knows the sea, knows it in a deep way that none of us would choose, knows it through the frigid cold, the dark night and the relentless bright reflection that blisters the skin, makes the mouth parched. Those who live to tell the tale, if in fact, they can bring themselves to, have a survivor’s pride. If one could survive a treacherous sea passage then one can find a new way to live in this new world. Life and death hang in the balance, but one does not cancel the other out. There is the want, the need, the destination, the death, the reckoning. And really, the dead tell their stories, too. And eventually, the sea gives up some, not all, who arrive, silent and stoic on sun-drenched beaches, when they are least expected. Their names are lost, along with their faces and their fingerprints. I tell the stories of the living. The dead tell their own stories, but their words, if we could hear them, would be like the memories that you wish you never had.

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The refugee is trying to come out of the shadows. The refugee wants to live life. Sometimes mouths move but nothing comes out. Never understand this to mean they have nothing to say. Care and witness to their lives’ is essential. It’s the  human thing to do.

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Vu Cumpra? The refugee street vendor in Sicily.


My friend and I are sitting in a cafe in Sicily enjoying the warmth and the coffee on a  particularly and unusually (for Sicily) cold day.   I see her look up. She says , in a low voice , “Here comes a vendor.”  Before I could ask her to elaborate, I look up and right beside be is a full-figured woman, her hair beautifully wrapped and her arms laden with cheap plastic bracelets and various other trinkets that she, along with many other “Vu Cumpra” , sell on the beaches and on the streets of nearly every Italian town and city in which refugees have made their home.  In fact, I have met up with this woman, who has never told me her name, many, many times in the past.  The routine is nearly always the same,  her approach unfailingly cheerful and high-spirited. It goes something like this:

Where are you from?” “What is your name?” Then: “I would like to give you a gift!”   

Cornicelli

Amulet, Cornicello

 

Before I know it, as in the past, she has placed a bracelet on my wrist, tossed a trinket into my lap, or otherwise has placed one of her wares so near me and with such seemingly good intentions that to deny her the pleasure of bestowing the “gift” would seem crass, a gross social faux pas, at the very least, mean.  At first I mildly protest, and then am ashamed of myself. She has given me a charm called a “cornicello”—in this case, it is a small bunch of “cornicelli”, which is an amulet said to ward off the evil eye and fashioned after a red pepper which it is often and understandably mistaken for. She insists.  I lean over to grab the wallet from my bag to look for change.  I find a 2 Euro coin which I give her. She winks at me, smiles widely.  She seems to recognize my companion, who , in fact, says she came in contact with her a few days ago. The woman,  a Senegalese refugee , does not attempt to give her a gift.  Just me, since she has not seen me in a while.   Once the coin is in her hands, she leaves as gracefully as she entered, wishing us wishes for a good New Year.  “Auguri!” she calls softly. “Buon Anno!” her voice trails as her eyes dart around the crowded cafe, looking for another opportunity.

As annoying as these interactions are, I understand them and I hate the story behind them.  It is not the first time I have been “gifted” an item from her.  In fact, I have a growing collection of these trinkets in a box at home.  I say “growing” because I will never not accept what I am offered.  Really, what does it cost me?  The Senegalese are an extremely enterprising immigrant population in Italy—and are said to be the most hard working and, as a result, the most successful.  I admire them for so very many reasons.  And while their appearance while eating dinner or deep in conversation over coffee while with a friend, can be jarring—they often seem to come out of nowhere, they are trying to make a living.  This is not the work that they would like to do, most of whom are educated people.  It is not easy to ingratiate yourself to people who you know will not want what you sell, who have no need for the cheap trinkets, poorly made ( and illegal ) knockoffs, but until something better comes along, IF , in fact, something better comes along, this is what they do.

So when they ask “Vu Cumpra?” (roughly, “you buy?”),  go ahead and buy.

 

 

 

 

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Does the “Invisible Line” Separating Italians and Immigrants and Refugees Equal Racism in Sicily? An Alternate View by Susi Kimbell


In a recent post, I wrote about my students witnessing what they perceived as the “Divided Line” in Sicily, which is essentially, the parallel (but not interactive) stance that Sicilians and immigrants/refugees maintain with one another.  In a discussion with my good friend and  respected colleague Susi Kimbell, she expressed remorse that our students did not have enough time to work through why the subjective reality they were experiencing had other dimensions that she experiences and witnesses every day in Sicily.  Her thoughts were so compelling , I asked her to gather her thoughts for this blog.  What Susi,  a circumspect and exemplar educator reveals is a different side of that divide, and does so with an intelligence and a compassion that is often missing from the discussion of immigrants and refugees in Italy.   I am so grateful for her enlightening  perspective.

 

Divided by ‘The Invisible Line’ – this is how American students described the situation in Siracusa as they observed the locals and migrants on a visit in March 2014. They noted the locals didn’t even acknowledge the presence of the foreigners, let alone interact with them. They saw an ‘invisible line’ of suspicion, of discrimination, perhaps even hostility.

Sadly, there is such a line.

 But while it’s easy to accuse the Sicilians of racism, I feel it’s a line of misunderstanding  – the old Sicilian men sunning themselves on the bench can’t talk to the migrants who, to them, are chatting in an incomprehensible language. They can’t understand so they can’t find out anything that would make the migrants ‘human’, someone they could relate to. The inability to communicate brings a deep atavistic fear of the foreigner.

Language gap

A failure to communicate

Why are they here? We are all unemployed in the south, so why would they want to come here? They’re going to take our jobs.

They complain about the crucifix in our classrooms. Is there a secret Islamic master-plan to take over Sicily/Italy/Europe? To fill the continent with Muslims until the Christians are the minority? 

When I look at Sicily today, I see how all the foreign invaders who arrived on the island’s shores have left their mark on the culture but also in the faces of the Sicilians – blue Norman and dark Mediterranean eyes, blonde and red hair from the North, brown and black hair from Greece, Spain or N. Africa. But all their languages, their traditions and religious beliefs fused over time to become a single, characteristically Sicilian culture. They lost their ‘foreignness’ to become part of a larger unifying and unified mosaic.

But how long did it take? The Sicilians are historically a suspicious people; the sea has always brought invaders and trouble, and until they can ‘place’ you in their mosaic, they are likely to be wary of you.  How long will it take for them to place the hundreds of migrants who come to Sicily’s shores today in that mosaic, if indeed they want to?

Walking in one of the main squares in town today, I noticed groups of Roma, Asians, Africans sitting on the benches but the locals had gone. There were hardly any people I could identify as Italian.

Migrants in Sicily

There is no threat, there is no apparent tension, but the fact remains that on certain streets at certain times of day, the locals are the minority. You walk along roads or past parks or bars and are the only European there. So is it when you have that awkward feeling of being the odd one out when you are actually in your home-town that the defensive mechanisms kick in? Is this when you feel the basest forms of protectionism of your national identity and heritage and does this provoke a sense of outrage that you no longer feel at ease in your own town?

And what about the cost to the Italian State? 300.000 euros a day. Nine million euros a month. We pay our taxes and get nothing back – the migrants get housed, clothed, they get pocket money and they still go begging at every traffic light in town.

Every day, it’s “Emergenza immigrazione” – Can we blame the locals for feeling concerned when every day of calm sea brings around one-thousand immigrants to the shores of south-east Sicily? Twenty thousand in the first four months of 2014? How can a little town like Pozzallo, ‘l’altra Lampedusa’,  of 18,000 inhabitants cope with hundreds of arrivals every day? And how can the news of 300 immigrants ‘on the run’ through Sicily after breaking out of a camp, looking for relatives or trying to make it to the north of Europe, not make the locals uneasy?

Various episodes illustrate growing tension. This week (May ‘14) a school trip was cancelled because the parents didn’t want their children travelling in the same buses that are used to transport the immigrants for fear of possible contagion. Today, a local mayor launched the alarm about cases of tuberculosis, scabies and HIV that have been identified amongst the arrivals, and the infectious diseases ward of the local hospital is full. I don’t know if the stories and the estimated arrivals expected over the summer (800,000!) are true. But I don’t think anyone can deny the scale of the phenomenon. And it is clear that the locals feel entitled to be worried.

But we are proud of our Italian navy for scouring the seas in search of leaking boats. We are proud of the men who help the desperate migrants make it ashore. We Italians have big hearts. We are compassionate and generous…

No-one here wants to see people drowning in front of them, to see the bodies washed up on the beautiful beaches. Many people I know personally have taken minors, who made it here without a family, under their wings and into their hearts. I see dedication and genuine concern. I read today about a cafè at Pozzallo where local students help the immigrants learn a little Italian and find out something about the place they have landed in.

So just how contradictory are the Sicilians?

 

contradiction

Contradictions are everywhere

I feel their contradiction is the contradiction of Europe – we as Europeans promote human rights, we are open and tolerant and accepting of diversity, but often it seems that these are just fine, empty words. Are compassion, tolerance and acceptance luxuries Europe can’t afford during an economic crisis?  European leaders face a dilemma as they try to balance political pressures to restrict migrants with assistance for those desperate enough to risk such a dangerous journey. Where is our solidarity, either for the individual or for our fellow-EU members? Where are the other European countries when the migrants need a destination, a work permit or document? No-one suggests sharing the cost of the rescue operations or offers to take some of the tens of thousands who reach Italian shores. In the north of Europe, they are worrying about other forms of immigration from within the EU. They wash their hands of the problem. Sicily seems a long way away.

Martin Luther King Quote

Here, however, the scale of the problem is enormous. All Italy can do is try to stop people dying during the crossing and give them food and clothes when they arrive. The infrastructures can’t cope so housing is over-crowded and basic. The call for personalized menus for each and every nationality that arrives is frankly quite unrealistic. Some sick people will slip through the net of health controls and of course there are a few terrible cases of lack of respect and loss of dignity. There probably is a ‘business’ behind the Mare Nostrum rescue-operation. But I can’t help feeling that we should give the local authorities, associations and volunteers their due and recognize the exceptional work they do in impossibly difficult circumstances. It’s too easy to point the finger at everything that isn’t done perfectly. And while the ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation  may be far from perfect, at least we have not had to witness tragedies like the Lampedusa sinking in October 2013 where some 360 people lost their lives. And are there any straightforward solutions to the problem?

invisible-line-sicily-3

So, yes, there is an invisible line of incommunicability and incomprehension dividing locals from the migrants. But it’s not an insurmountable line, and perhaps, before we accuse them of racism, we should remember that the Sicilians have over time absorbed and come to terms with all the waves of foreigners who landed here. They have learnt from them and added layer after ‘foreign’ layer to their culture, till it has become their own, and one they are deeply proud of. I’d like to think they will do the same again.

Susi Kimbell

Susi Kimbell

 

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